Smash the Myth of Busyness


We’ve probably all seen it happen: that moment when someone moves from busy to overwhelmed, from getting a lot done to having too much to do.

Among my clients, being too busy — having so much to do that it can’t all be done and the to-do list starts eating away at personal time — is a continuing concern. It’s a concern because busyness kills productivity, undermines leadership, and ruins personal time.

This social pressure for busyness is based on the false assumption that working harder leads to more success. My experience is just the opposite.

The Pressure to Be Busy

This recent study by Boston University researcher Erin Reid shows just how bad things are. Reid looked at male employees in an unnamed consulting firm and found not only crushing workloads, but also that men who made public their desire to scale back work to more reasonable levels were seen as slackers and their careers suffered. So the pressure to keep working 60-80 hours a week and be “always on” was intense.

(Interestingly, Reid found that women were more likely to publicly say they are dialing back and were able to take advantage of different work arrangements to do that, though their careers suffered, too.)

Work Less and Accomplish More?

The fascinating part of the study, though, was a senior manager Reid called Lloyd: he worked reasonable hours, took plenty of time to be with his family, and structured work around his personal time. Importantly (and sadly), Lloyd also kept to himself just how much less he was working, even though he was accomplishing all his goals. As a result, Lloyd was widely seen within the company as a rising star and had recently been promoted to partner.

Even more fascinating was that Lloyd was part of a work team where everyone worked reasonable hours. And like Lloyd, this entire team was one of the most successful groups in the company. As one team member put it:

“We kind of have a shared agreement as to what work–life balance is on our team. We basically work really closely with each other to make sure that we can all do that. A lot of us have young kids, and we’ve designed it so we can do that. We’ve really designed the whole business [unit] around having intellectual freedom, making a lot of money, [and] having work–life balance. It’s pretty rare. And we don’t get pushback from above because we are squaring that circle—from the managing partners— ’cause we are one of the most successful parts of the company. Most of the partners have no idea our hours are that light.”

Put Yourself First, In a Good Way

There are plenty of reasons why people who live more balanced lives are more successful:

  • Quality trumps quantity — well-rested and happy people come up with better, more valuable ideas.
  • Happy and well-balanced workers make better team-mates, forging deeper bonds and interacting more with colleagues to coordinate work and trade vital information.
  • A reasonable schedule allows people to devote attention to what is most important instead of what is most pressing.
  • Un-stressed workers make fewer mistakes and connect better with clients and colleagues.

Many of these obvious but overlooked truths have been bolstered repeatedly by research, adding up to the fact that taking care of yourself, especially if you are a leader, is good business for everyone in the company.

But Change Comes Slowly

What’s most worrying is that the pattern of unremitting busyness, and its related assumption that good team members give their all to the company, is at least as rampant in the startup world as it is in the legacy business world.

So while many startups are revolutionizing the world with their products, they are relying on the same old organizational patterns and habits that have ruled western business since the industrial revolution.

This is a huge mismatch that not only leads to burnout among startup pioneers, but undermines their companies as they reach the limits of outmoded organizational models and leadership styles. You can’t play in a disruptive economy without aligning every part of your practices with the disruptive paradigm — it’s like putting a jet engine in a Wright Flyer; the mismatch will destroy you.

It’s Your Choice

So, given the huge pressure to be busy in contemporary business, it takes guts to step off the treadmill and make time for a high-quality of life at work.

Not only do we get a lot of attaboys from being the busiest person in the office, busyness also allows us to avoid all sorts of other issues we’d rather not face. (I wrote about my struggle with this for the Huffington Post recently.)

But someone’s got to call time out. Will you be the first to tip the balance?


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